The Brooklyn Burkeans

Jonathan Bronitsky, "The Brooklyn Burkeans," National Affairs (Winter 2014), pp 121-136.


“[I]f I were to say what neo-conservatism is as an intellectual impulse,” [Irving] Kristol stated in 1983, “I’d say it’s an effort to link these two conservative traditions represented on the one hand by Edmund Burke, on the other by Adam Smith.” He similarly explained in a 1999 letter to Daniel Polisar that his “mission” in the “development of neo-conservatism” had been “to reconcile Adam Smith and Burke — who were friends and co-admirers.” “They managed to get along well enough in 19th century Britain,” he added, “and they still get along, if erratically, in 20th century America.” Kristol was just reiterating what he had outlined in Commentary four decades earlier, in 1960: “In their own day, despite their markedly different casts of mind, Burke and Smith were united in affirming the two major propositions of the original Whig synthesis: (1) liberty is the most precious of political goods, and (2) civilization is the result of human action but not of human design.”

Some observers over the years did ascertain that classical liberalism was the underpinning of Kristol and Himmelfarb’s worldview. In 1972, Robert Bartley, the Wall Street Journal’s editorial-page editor, declared that Kristol’s writings seemed to leap “almost straight from the pages of Edmund Burke, whose ideas the word conservative was coined to describe.” Michael Harrington followed suit the next year in Dissent. “The philosophy behind this theory,” he opined on the neoconservative critique of liberalism, “goes back at least to Edmund Burke and his assertion of an organic development of society as an argument against state interference with the providence of the natural order of things.” In 1985, an article ran in El País, the highest-circulation newspaper in Spain, which stressed the link between Burkeanism and neoconservatism. “The key,” it asserted (as translated), “should be found in the anti-utopian cases of a type of political-philosophical reasoning inspired by Burke — the Burkean persuasion — or resistance to the ideological impulses stemming from political rationalism, utopia, and terror.” What is more, Diana Trilling, wife of literary critic Lionel Trilling, avowed in her 1993 memoir that her dear friends Kristol and Himmelfarb were once known as “Burkeans, not right-wing Republicans or Republicans of any stripe.”

This emphasis on the Anglo-Scottish Enlightenment is hardly what comes to mind when most people think of neoconservatism, but the forgotten early years of Kristol and Himmelfarb suggest that it ought to be.

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